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Which Ronda Rousey shows at UFC 207? That’s a good question…

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If we’re being real, when somebody says, "this is definitely one of my last fights," it doesn’t need to be fact-checked — it’s universally true. Each fight is a step closer to the last one. That’s just how it is. Yet when Ronda Rousey says it, on a daytime show like Ellen, shortly before telling a story about how her boyfriend Travis Browne squeegee’d a damp bench for her with his butt so that she may sit down, it takes on import. Rousey is returning from the spiritual woods, where she spent many months dealing with her loss to Holly Holm, to fight Amanda Nunes for the bantamweight title on Dec. 30.

And that fight, win or lose, is definitely one of her last.

This is one of those things that swings back and forth between predictable and alarming. Even though Rousey took a year-long break from fighting (and its demands) to explore the silver screen and put the pieces back together in solitude, there was at least a thought that she was positively plotting against all those women masquerading around with her title. First Holm, who did the bad thing to her. Then Miesha Tate, whom she has crushed at intervals throughout her career. And then Nunes, who becomes the unlikely measuring stick to see just how far Rousey has gone afield.

There was the possibility that she was using her time away to replenish her hunger and competitive hatred — those familiar hallmarks that made her who she was.

Yet the Rousey that has emerged back into the light didn’t strike me as the competitor that flew out to Melbourne back in November last year, convinced of her own invincibility. It could have been that Ellen Degeneres was treating her with such child-like delicacy — "you’re going to win," Ellen kept reminding her — but Rousey came off like somebody barely to the outskirts of an existential jag. The women who’ve been keeping the division rolling in her stead? Just abstractions, independent nothings, not people to overthrow. Maybe this is part of the new marketing strategy, to appear a little more reserved, and a lot more ephemeral, in hopes of drawing in a few more eyes. Maybe this is the Farewell Tour approach, which can live in a state of constant revision (Mötley Crüe has been doing it for years).

But Rousey seems afflicted on some level, so that she’s identifying the exit doors and is arranging her return to fighting in a way that feels more comfortable. It was on the same show, way back at the beginning of 2016, that Rousey confessed that suicidal thoughts flashed through her head right after Holm beat her at UFC 193. Don’t let anybody tell you fighting isn’t psychological. Rousey’s identity as the unbeatable, Tyson-like, uber-competitive, anti-Do Nothing Bitch was sincere. That’s how she was at her most natural. One of the reasons she transcended the game and gave so many girls a sense of their own bad-assery, and captivated the imagination of the broader media, and made women feel comfortable in their own bodies, was that she was unapologetically authentic — a breach of worn-out stereotypes, and a breath of fresh air. Her voice, which carried to Beyoncé’s stage and beyond, grew louder with every ferocious win. We were tying her to life’s great metaphors.

Of course, in mixed martial arts people lose. That’s just how it is. Rousey definitely wasn’t "people," but she handled her own cage mortality with extreme tension. It’s hard to tell Rousey that people lose — that Muhammad Ali lost, and so did Conor McGregor — because she was bigger than the game itself. It was part of her hard-wiring to dominate.

Read her book, My Fight, Your Fight, and you’ll see just how unacceptable losing became when the spotlight wasn’t centered on her. We’re left to guess at the internal magnitude of what her losing as a pop culture icon meant, especially with the sheer tonnage of schadenfreude she endured after the fact, when so many fans and media celebrated her demise. That was yet another layer of the whole thing that she’s thought about in her time away.

The basics of the loss — that Holm exploited a weakness, and was able to capitalize on it — feel like some secondary premise to the story. But it’s possible that Rousey doesn’t have it in her to want to evolve. She ascended to such heights doing what she does well. Now, it’s an endless game of second-guessing. To be aggressive, or not to be. Each hesitation takes away from what she was.

I am not a psychologist, but for all of this the remedy for Rousey could pretty simple: To win. To redeem herself against Nunes. If she is a fish out of water leading up to a fight after a cataclysmic loss (and extended hiatus), she could begin to re-materialize as the Rousey we all knew before Holm heading into her next fight. She handles wins well. She handles losses poorly. How many fights does she have left? It depends on which way it goes, but you get the sense she’s as cautious about finding out as we are.